Dane Lyddiard - Women in STEM: Perspectives from Researcher & Academic A/Prof Lily Pereg
I was recently fortunate enough to sit down and chat with two ASM members who were pivotal in developing my passion for microbiology: University of New England Associate Professor Lily Pereg and former Head of Microbiology at Southern IML Pathology, Ms. Anda Clayton. This first blog will focus on the career of A/Prof. Pereg who has established herself as a well-respected research scientist in the field of microbiology and lectures in both Biochemistry and Microbiology (and I must add, she has been one of my all-time favourite educators!). I’m sure her experiences along with those of Anda Clayton (in the next blog) will demonstrate the diversity of careers that exist in microbiology, encourage more people to join this exciting field, and overall, I hope they inspire you as much they have me!
What are your current roles?
Lily is an Associate Professor in molecular and cellular biology at the University of New England (UNE). She has been the convenor of this discipline at UNE and the chair of the molecular biology research group. Lily is also an executive editor for the peer reviewed journal SOIL, and Vice Chair of the Soil Biology, Microbiology and Biodiversity Subdivision, Soil System Science, of the European Geosciences Union assembly.
What is your interest in microbiology?
“I have always been fascinated by symbiotic relationships, naturally, my principle interest is in interactions.” This includes beneficial and pathogenic interactions of microbes with higher organisms (such as marine corals, seagrasses and land plants) and other microbes.
How did you get to where you are today?
“I majored in Ecology when I did my Bachelor’s degree [at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel] - a very broad area that encompassed animal behaviour, biochemistry, microbiology, ecology and many other fields.” While travelling Lily fell in love with diving and so “it was natural that I combined this love with my Master’s degree and studied Marine Biology [at Tel Aviv University],” focussing on nitrogen fixation in sea grasses and sediments.
Imagining a country surrounded by ocean and with a good reputation for students, Lily headed to Australia and the University of Sydney to complete her PhD under an International Postgraduate Research Scholarship, concentrating on interactions of rhizospheric bacteria with plants. Lily later spent time in Germany and worked in biochemistry (looking at the Lac repressor) before finding work at UNE. (As a side note, Lily also spent a year at the Institut Pasteur in Paris looking at molecular aspects of bacterial interactions with plants, which she completely plays down and which makes me terribly jealous!).
Why science and microbiology?
“Well I was passionate about nature and so ecology seemed right, and I enjoyed diving so combined that with study!” Lily pointed out that an enthusiastic High School teacher helped steer her love towards science, along with her long time passion for symbioses and nature. "With an inquiring mind, I enjoy the challenge in the search for answers". Lily finds the interactions with other researchers fascinating and feels there is high rewards in sharing knowledge.
As a woman in science, what have you found to be the challenges in your career?
Lily pointed out that for her, being a woman meant not being part of “the boys club”, and being a foreigner in Australia meant she belonged to no club at all. “This means missing out on some of those instant networks”; a particularly acute problem when working for a small regional university. But with hard work, persistence and a little luck Lily made her own international networks and has been successful in her field. “I think in Australia, at least, there have been improvements made so that being a Woman is not an obstacle to a career in science,” Lily added, giving hope to younger Women starting out in the field.
What have been the most rewarding aspects of your career?
“My research and research findings.” Answering research questions for Lily is clearly reward enough. “Science is a passion in itself, it was never about a career or titles for me”. Lily finds it rewarding to ignite passion for science in young people and see her students succeed in pursuing their career. Through sharing and mentoring, it is her goal to assist postdoctoral graduates to establish their career in Australia.
What is your advice to women considering a career in microbiology or science?
“Follow you interests and dreams. That’s not just a cliché. If you love what you do you will be willing to do the necessary hard work.” Lily added, “be proactive, don’t sit and wait for opportunities to come your way. Be persistent.” Most importantly she stressed to never say never! – Clearly good advice as her many achievements are the fruits of such persistence and the ability to press ahead despite the naysayers.
What would you like to see change with regards to women in microbiology and science?
“Improvements for women have happened in the Sciences but across the board we need to see improved secondary education in sciences and a move to student independence rather than a ‘spoon fed’ approach.” Lily feels that issues around parenting breaks from research are complicated but no longer need to be a burden solely placed on women: men are more commonly able to take paternity breaks to be primary carers and so it’s between both parents to discuss and decide who takes the time out of their career.
So, where to from here?
“I’d love to get back to some of those questions I originally wanted to research for my own personal interest and for improving our basic knowledge. I want to do that using all the knowledge and networks I have gained.” For Lily it is clear that success is measured in discovery and not professional titles.